What Maternity Leave In The U.S. Is Really Like

by Cari Stark
Originally Published: 
monkeybusinessimages / Getty

Let’s be honest. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) sucks — especially for working mothers. And I’m considered one of the lucky ones. I live in a state that gives me an extra six weeks of maternity leave, making my little baby vacation paid for a whopping 12 weeks.

If you don’t live in a state like California that tacks on a seemingly generous six weeks baby bonding to the standard six weeks disability that only some of us qualify for, you are not alone, you’re not alone. You might even be among the 25% of American mothers who return to work only two weeks postpartum, before your baby can even support her head properly.

It’s more likely, however, that you’re among the 40% who are not eligible for FMLA. This means you can take 12 weeks to care for and nurture your baby, sure. Just don’t expect to return to your job, since it’s not protected. Then there’s the 61% whose jobs are protected but still can’t take the full 12 weeks due to financial restraints —considering that many women’s maternity leave is completely unpaid, and many of us who do get paid only receive 60% of our income during our so-called “maternity leave.”

This brings me back to us lucky ones — the moms like me who can afford to stay home for 12 whole weeks (at the mercy of our savings account and Babies”R”Us gift cards). But before you go turning green with envy, let’s consider for a moment what this generous 12 weeks looks like for us lucky ones, the few-and-far-between parents who get to spend the best-case-scenario amount of time with our babies before returning to work.

To set the mood, and for the sake of full disclosure, understand that I’m typing this, two-thumbed, on my smartphone, which is dangling over my 10-week old daughter’s head, her nose pressed against my bare breast as she sleeps peacefully after nursing.

You see, she’s on my lap instead of in her crib because I only have two more weeks with her. In two short weeks and one day (and counting), I’ll return to work and she’ll join her brother at daycare. Our days together are numbered. But they have been from the start.

Eight weeks ago, when Charlotte turned 2 weeks old, my nipples completely healed and breastfeeding transitioned from a torturous exercise that took place every two hours on the hour (or more), into a painless and beautiful bonding moment with the added benefit of nourishment (which in the beginning days of nursing takes a back seat to the “real” reason we breastfeed: to knock ’em out for a couple hours, god willing). But that was hardly the end of my breastfeeding problems.

My 2-week-old newborn meant one thing: I only have ten weeks left to build a stash of breast milk before I return to work and become an exclusive pumper from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Translation: Dig out the breast pump that’s been in my closet for the last year, dust her off, sterilize the tubing, and go after it — again.

This means bottles, breast milk storage bags, steam bags to sterilize everything after each use, making room in the freezer for proper storage, trying not to overdo it as to avoid an oversupply which might lead to mastitis, and then finding the time to pump in between nursing, bonding, changing diapers, making an effort to pay attention to my toddler, acknowledging my husband’s existence, and promising myself to stop snapping at loved ones because I’m so sleep deprived. But who the hell can afford formula after a hefty daycare bill the size of a mortgage?

My little nursling sleeping on my lap isn’t all coos and giggles. It’s not all “treasure this moment, she’ll outgrow this stage within the blink of an eye.” No. These moments are a combination of awe and panic. We’re both in pure heaven with our warm stomachs pressed together, her perfect body spread out across mine, sure — though, my stomach’s in knots right now also. As enjoyable as our snuggles are, I’m not exactly doing Charlotte any favors by letting her nap on me. Since I won’t be there during nap time at daycare, I should probably get her more accustomed to sleeping alone, in her swing perhaps, to make the transition easier. It’s settled — I’ll start tomorrow. (Of course, I’ve been making that promise for weeks now. But I really mean it this time. Probably.)

Fast-forward a few more weeks, Charlotte’s now 4 weeks old. I pull the milestone blocks off the shelf, strategically place them near her body, and snap hundreds of photos within a matter of seconds until I capture the perfect one. I post it to Facebook and tag my husband, including an adorable caption stating something to the effect of “I’m 1 month old! Can you believe it?” But hours later, just as I’m rejoicing over my little Char getting nearly 100 likes, I’m reminded that I only have eight more weeks with her. So I put my phone away.

Over the next two weeks, I get lost in the moment. I’m enthralled by her new developmental stages and her brother’s insistence on hugging baby Charlotte. She’s making eye contact and smiling at me — real, actual smiles! And she seems to like her brother. Everything is everything right now. But wait. I need to pause all this for a moment. Now it’s time to introduce the bottle in preparation for daycare in six weeks. I’m at the halfway point now. This sucks. But she took to the bottle like a champ, so at least there’s that.

Week seven: Fantastic. She’s no longer taking the bottle. Google the shit out of possible remedies. Try different nipples, different temperatures, different holding positions. Don’t panic. You still have five more weeks.

Week eight: Two-month milestone picture taken and posted. Revel for a few moments in near triple digit likes. Then continue panicking because the bottle has now become her mortal fucking enemy. Try not to rip your sister’s face off when she offers advice to help.

Week nine: You’ve got to be kidding me. She no longer wants any other human being holding her. Only me. Fucking beautiful. I only have three weeks to fix this problem.

Which brings us to the present. Tomorrow she’ll be 10 weeks old. She just woke up and is nursing eagerly as I now type one-handed. I’m not showered, and I’m ignoring a laundry basket full of clean, unfolded clothes sitting on the love seat to my right, eyeballing the clock since I need to pick up my toddler from daycare soon, and treasuring every sweaty moment I have with my infant right now.

I’m not soaking up every ounce of Charlotte right now because these days are precious and soon she’ll be conning me out of brushing her teeth thoroughly the way her brother does. No. Today I skipped a shower because in two weeks and one day, I’ll only get her from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. and only in between chores, fixing dinner, and bedtime routines. I’ll only get her on weekends and holidays. I’ll only get her during PTO and sick leave, when she has a fever or another UTI. Like her brother, I’ll only get her in small increments. The only difference is, she’s much too young for that. But off she’ll go, nonetheless.

Why? Because here in America, we don’t actually get a maternity leave. Unlike the other 36 countries that allow working mothers to take 52 weeks leave — paid, we get a measly disability leave with some extra add-ons at best. Because here in America, land of the free, we’re forced to leave our babies long before either of us are physically and emotionally ready to be separated. Because here in America most of us have no other option.

This article was originally published on